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Film / Judgment at Nuremberg

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Judgment at Nuremberg is a 1961 Law Procedural film ostensibly Based on a True Story, directed by Stanley Kramer, written (originally as an episode of Playhouse 90) by Abby Mann, and featuring an All-Star Cast including Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Maximilian Schell, and Montgomery Clift.

The film presents a fictionalized version of the post-World War II "Judges' Trial" held by a U.S. military tribunal in the German city of Nuremberg in 1947. In this trial, sixteen defendants—all German judges and lawyers—were indicted on charges of:

  • Participating in a common plan or conspiracy to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • War crimes through the abuse of the judicial and penal process, resulting in mass murder, torture, and plunder of private property.
  • Crimes against humanity on the same grounds, including slave labor charges.
  • Membership in a criminal organization, either the Nazi Party or SS.

In the fictional trial presented in the film, a panel of three U.S. judges, led by Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Tracy), must decide the fate of four German judges—including Ernst Janning (Lancaster)—who are merely accused of "collaborating with the Nazis". Historian Robert G. Moeller has argued that the film's characters and story were crafted to draw the greatest possible parallel with the racially-oppressive "Jim Crow" policies of the USA itself at the time of its release (1961) by comparing and contrasting Nazi German and American policies and values; the message, of course, being that the USA's own espoused values were being betrayed by similar policies. It also notes explicitly how Nazi eugenics laws were very similar to those upheld by the US Supreme Court (and still on the books at the time).note 

A pre-stardom William Shatner, still five years away from getting a gig on Star Trek, appears as an American officer who is a liaison with Judge Haywood. A pre-Hogan's Heroes Werner Klemperer appears (ironically) as one of the Nazis on trial.

This film contains examples of:

  • All Germans Are Nazis:
    • Aside from the Jews, naturally, the film implies that most German people who weren't Nazis themselves at least went along with them. The defendants and others try to claim differently, most of them unconvincingly; however, a couple notable exceptions are presented in Rudolph Peterson (a man from a Communist family who is likely mentally disabled and was forcibly sterilized—he says for their political beliefs) and Irene Hoffmann-Wallner (whose Jewish friend was accused of "racial defilement" as a result of supposedly having sex with her—she'd then been imprisoned for perjury after testifying that he'd done no such thing) as victims of defendants. Irene's husband is also portrayed as sympathetic towards her desire to testify, although worried that it will bring about repercussions against them. Also a German judge and a lawyer who testify against Janning and the Nazi legal system; the judge even having resigned before being forced to sentence people in the name of the Third Reich.
    • Despite repeatedly making it clear that he holds all Germans responsible for the actions of the Third Reich, Lawson actually defies this trope when cross-examining a defense witness summoned by Rolfe. He points out that she was a member of the Nazi Party, and that while it was expected for all German citizens to support the party, there was no legal requirement for them to actually join it.
  • Amoral Attorney: Rolfe. He has lots of Jerkass Has a Point moments about the hypocrisy of the Allies, but he is fully aware of the guilt of his clients and determined to get them acquitted more out of a sense of nationalism than a desire for justice while bullying the witnesses in ways that even his clients disapprove of.
  • Armor-Piercing Response:
    • The last line of dialogue in the movie, after Haywood visits Janning's cell, and Janning tries to justify himself and practically begs Haywood for a measure of forgiveness.
      Janning: Those people, those millions of people. I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it.
      Haywood: (with sorrow) Herr Janning... it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.
    • Another example came earlier in the film when Haywood was talking to the old German couple who worked at his house. They said they didn't know what Hitler was doing to the Jewish population, then asked "Even if we did know, what could we have done?" To which Haywood responds, "You said you didn't know." The old couple realized that Haywood saw through their protestations, and it was clear that they were lying to themselves about not knowing, and were fully aware of the atrocities.
    • After being shown a film on the Holocaust, Lampe is unable to believe that things like that happened, even if he admits at least hundreds of people were murdered by the Third Reich. So he asks another inmate how could that be possible, clearly looking for reassurance... and the other inmate, who worked with Eichmann, not only tells him that it was possible but explains how they did it. It could be the reason why Lampe seems to feel regret at the end.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Mrs. Bertholt's husband is said to have been executed as part of the Malmedy trial. All the accused in that trial received clemency and were released within a decade (many weren't even sentenced to death at all). They were also all SS men on trial, while her husband is said to have been regular army.
    • Possibly done for deliberate effect, but Rolfe's closing argument implies that Winston Churchill was an admirer of Hitler until the outbreak of hostilities with Germany. Churchill was actually one of the few members of his party who was openly opposed to Hitler throughout his time in power; he did write the letter that Rolfe refers to, but it was to negatively contrast what he saw as the inaction of then-PM Neville Chamberlain in the face of Hitler having just carried out the Anschluss and making clear moves to invade Czechoslovakia.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": Janning does this to Rolfe as he's badgering Irene Hoffman on the stand.
  • Book Ends: The same Nazi marching song opens and closes the film.
  • Crusading Lawyer: The prosecutor, Colonel Lawson, is described as a "young radical" who is dead set on seeking the highest sentence possible for the defendants and clearly fights for the case with all his might. The fact that he was one of the soldiers liberating the concentration camps might have something to do with his attitude.
  • Defiant to the End: Whereas the other three defendants show at least some signs of recognising their wrongdoings, Hahn remains convinced to the very end that he and the regime he served under did nothing wrong, and that they were helping to save the western world from Communism. He even interrupts Haywood's reading out the verdict to declare "Today you sentence me, tomorrow the Bolsheviks sentence you!"
  • Dramatically Missing the Point:
    • After the prosecution shows the extent of the Nazi regime's atrocities in court, the most bigoted and remorseless of the four defendants said "How dare they. We are judges, not executioners.", ignoring the fact that executioners execute people that judges like him have sentenced to death.
    • The other judge then turns to another prisoner, one of Eichmann's deputies, and asks how such things could be possible. The prisoner delivers a totally emotionless and detached lecture on the technical and logistical requirements for mass killings.
    • When an American reporter talks about how people don't care about the war anymore and see it as old news, Haywood says that the war was only two years ago, to which the reporter unabashedly says "that's right".
  • Easily Forgiven: One of the main thrusts of the film is that Germany and the German people were being a little too easily forgiven, as the democratic West was forging ties with West Germany, then the front line in the Cold War.
  • Ensemble Cast: There's a good amount of major players, with Judge Dan Haywood as the closest thing to a main character. However, he's often Out of Focus in the courtroom where the main focus stays on the two primary lawyers and witnesses.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Janning states that one of the great injustices of the case is that he is being grouped in with his co-defendant Emil Hahn, a Nazi true believer (as opposed to the My Country, Right or Wrong attitude of Janning himself). When Hahn tries to talk to him in the prison yard about how the Americans will go easy on them so they can ally with the Germans against the Soviet Union, Janning is disgusted that Hahn even feels justified in talking to him.
  • Groin Attack: A man testifies how he was forcibly sterilized on the grounds of alleged mental disability under the Nazi eugenics laws (partly in retaliation for him and his relatives fighting the Nazis, as they were Communists). Then it's uncomfortably noted how such laws were based on American laws of the time, ones upheld by the US Supreme Court.
  • Hanging Judge: Janning plays with this. Initially, he was regarded as fair-minded, thus a Jewish defendant in a trial he presided over felt hope at him being the judge. However, Janning convicted and sentenced the defendant to death — he was executed. Later, he admits that he'd become this by then, and would have convicted the Jewish man no matter what evidence there was.
  • Hate Sink: Hahn is very clearly designed to be the nearest thing that the film has to an outright villain. Whereas Janning and to a lesser degree Lampe come to show clear regret for their actions, and Hofstetter is at least cognisant enough of his wrongdoings to try claiming he was Just Following Orders, Hahn remains utterly unrepentant and even proud of his actions throughout, to the point of interrupting Janning's testimony to denounce him as a traitor.
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: Rolfe's thesis in his closing statement, in which he said that Germany and the Germans aren't the only ones to blame. The American industrialists who sold arms to Hitler, the pope (Pius XI) who signed an agreement with him in 1933, the diplomats who made an agreement with him at Munich and Churchill's pre-war praise of Hitler, both in 1938 and the Soviets' signing their Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact" in pre-war August 1939 all share the blame.
  • Heroic BSoD: Col. Lawson, after Rolfe destroys Rudolph Peterson on the stand (which leads him towards Drowning My Sorrows).
  • Hypocrite: The defendants' lawyer Rolfe repeatedly accuses the American authorities of this, explicitly and otherwise. In the case of a man supposedly sterilized for being a Communist, Rolfe shows that he probably is mentally disabled (the Nazis passed a law to sterilize them), although political retaliation likely played a role too. He had earlier noted their sterilization law was based on the American one, subtly asking "How do you condemn something which your country does too?" These laws were still on the books in the US, too, when the film was released. After the film on the Holocaust, he also claims it's hypocritical that Americans condemned this when talking with Janning in relation to the war-ending atomic bombings of Japan.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Played with. Although he has a vested interest in rehabilitating the image of the German legal system, Rolfe is correct in that Nazi Germany's eugenicist and racist policies were not new or exclusive to the time and place, and many had origin and precedent in American law. However, these arguments are not entirely relevant to the complicity of the judges themselves and fall more into hair-splitting and whataboutism than a refutation that they knowingly committed crimes against humanity.
  • Just Following Orders: Rolfe's defense of the judges amounts to this. "A judge does not make the laws; he carries out the laws of his country."
  • Law Procedural: Concerning the development of new law for prosecution of crimes against humanity.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Brought up in the film is the (genuine) fact that relations between Germans and Africans, and Germans and Jews, were criminalized as the act of "Miscegenation" in the 1935 Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor (Nuremberg Laws). The term, and laws, were derived from contemporary US state laws which were still in effect when the film was released. Janning sentenced a Jew to death under this law for alleged sex with an "Aryan" German woman.
  • Match Cut:
    • A cut from Mrs. Bertholt pouring Dan a cup of coffee to Col. Lawson doing the same in his office.
    • A cut from a group of Germans banging their beer steins on a table to the banging of a gavel in the courtroom.
  • Mirroring Factions:
    • There is a point about the "My country, right or wrong" doctrine which is proclaimed by nationalists, both German and American.
    • When Lawson testifies about hangings of children in concentration camps, the camera cuts to a close-up of a stone-faced African-American MP, drawing an implicit parallel with lynchings.
    • Rolfe defends his clients against charges for ordering eugenic sterilizations by noting that the US Supreme Court itself sanctioned them, even explicitly citing Justice Holmes' notorious conclusion "three generations of imbeciles are enough" (while in fact the Nazis took inspiration from American eugenicists).
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Leads to a "Not So Different" Remark, and Janning's Heel Realization.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Janning is the only defendant who explicitly voices remorse, or admits his guilt. Only his final conversation with Judge Heywood seemed to really make this sink in. Even then, Janning maintains he didn't know it would come to that, before Heywood says he had known the moment he sentenced to death a man who he'd known was really innocent.
    • Lampe also seems to regret his acts but doesn't say anything.
  • Not Quite the Right Thing: It's implied by the ending that the judges' verdict was this, with relations between the Americans and West Germans suffering from what the latter see as an overly harsh punishment, Mrs. Bertholt refusing to speak to Haywood, and the ending card indicating that Rolfe's prediction that all four defendants would be released within five years proved correct.
  • "Not So Different" Remark:
    • A standard argument employed by German nationalists and sympathizers throughout the trials. This is part of Rolfe's argument when trying to defend his clients on the charges of their authorizing eugenic sterilization, asking one of the accused if he can identify a judicial opinion upholding a law allowing this before he reveals it was handed down by the US Supreme Court (this was Truth in Television, unfortunately).
    • When speaking with Janning, Rolfe brings up the atomic bombings of Japan after Lawson played a film on the Holocaust.
  • Orbital Shot: Kramer was nervous about his long courtroom examination scenes coming across as boring on the screen. So he filled the movie with swooping, circling camera movement in and around the characters. The most extreme example of this, and the most famous shot in the movie, is the scene where the camera does a complete 360-degree orbit around Col. Lawson during his opening statement.
  • Politically Correct History: In-Universe, you can see the beginnings of the Clean Wehrmacht myth taking shape, and the narrative that Nazi atrocities were the work of a small group of fanatics is being used by the German people and the Americans to absolve the silent majority of their guilt.
    Col. Lawson: There are no Nazis in Germany, didn't you know that, Judge? The Eskimos invaded Germany and took over, that's how all those terrible things happened. It wasn't the fault of the Germans, it was the fault of those damn Eskimos.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Rolfe tries to argue that the German judges, especially Janning, were this. Naturally, Lawson doesn't agree. For that matter, Rolfe himself counts as this — the men he's defending are clearly guilty (and in at least Hahn's case, unrepentant about it), but he's still doing what his legal oath requires him to do, which is to defend them to the best of his ability.
  • Rank Up: Emil Hahn was a former prosecutor early in the Nazi regime but eventually became a judge.
  • Scenery Gorn: The film opens with Judge Haywood being driven through the streets of a bombed-out Nuremberg. His first line is "I didn't know it was so bad."
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Colonel Lawson was clearly affected by his experiences liberating concentration camps, and his zealousness prosecuting Nazis is likely inspired by the horrors he witnessed.
  • Slowly Slipping Into Evil: Janning describes himself and other Germans who had gone along with the Nazis as essentially this, doing increasingly worse things in the name of patriotism until they had unleashed the Holocaust. It's mentioned that he helped found the Weimar Republic but eventually ended up helping the Nazis, whose regime destroyed not only the Republic but everything it stood for.
  • Smash the Symbol: The first shot after the credits is of the giant swastika at the Nuremberg Rally grounds being blasted to smithereens by US Army engineers.
  • That Was Objectionable: When the Feldenstein Case is first mentioned, Rolfe tries objecting to raising the case as evidence, but quickly stumbles over his words and can only claim that it "appeals to emotions that would best not be raised", with Heywood quickly overruling the objection. It's clear that Rolfe knows Janning (the most sympathetic of the defendants) will be royally screwed if the Feldenstein case is discussed in any depth, but can't think of a good argument against discussing it.
  • Tragic Villain: The concept itself is a major plot point, as it explores how the German people could be complicit in the Holocaust. Hans Rolfe argues that Ernst Janning, a once respectable jurist and legal expert, committed the crimes he did out of a sense of duty to a system that encouraged it. Judge Haywood does agree with Rolfe to a point — Janning was a tragic figure. But his defeat does not excuse him from the crimes against humanity he committed. The tragedy is that a respectable human being can be easily manipulated into committing atrocities.
  • Translation Convention: All of the German characters speak German at the beginning of the trial, with translation provided (and the judges and attorneys wearing headsets), until Kramer cuts to a close-up of Rolfe speaking. As he pulls back the camera, Rolfe starts speaking English, and from then on, so do the other German characters. They still act like they're speaking in different languages, using the translation headsets and such, which makes for some odd moments.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Well, there was a judges' trial, but every character and every detail of the trial process is fictional. Ernst Janning is a composite of three different judges who were tried. Also, the real Judges' Trial took place in 1947, but the film moves it to 1948 so that it can happen against the backdrop of the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin Blockade, to explain why US authorities will go easy on the defendants — support from the Germans is needed.
  • Villain Protagonist: Hans Rolfe is one of the leading characters and is an Amoral Attorney trying to get Nazis acquitted of their war crimes.